I Guess We’re All McCarthyites Now
I’m indebted to Luis Gutiérrez, the bumptious congressman from Illinois’s Fourth District, for confirming what I long resisted acknowledging: America’s political discourse has been painfully coarsened.
My epiphany came last week, when Mr. Gutiérrez reacted angrily after Donald Trump put on notice the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Mr. Gutiérrez had met in July with John Kelly, the retired Marine general who was then secretary of homeland security, and who seems to have offered soothing words on the subject. But then Mr. Kelly became President Trump’s chief of staff—and, presumably, signed off on ending DACA.
“General Kelly is a hypocrite who is a disgrace to the uniform he used to wear,” Mr. Gutiérrez declared last week. “He has no honor and should be drummed out of the White House, along with the other white supremacists and those enabling the president’s actions by ‘just following orders.’ ”
Mr. Gutiérrez is no stranger to bombast, but what surprised me here was that his words passed largely unnoticed. A general in government service who is “a disgrace to the uniform.” Where have we heard that before?
In the early 1950s, an Army dentist named Irving Peress refused to complete forms asking about his political background. When Sen. Joseph McCarthy learned in 1954 that Peress had been recommended for honorable discharge, he subpoenaed the dentist to appear before his investigatory committee, where the dentist was alternately defiant and evasive.
McCarthy then summoned the commanding officer at the base where Peress worked to explain why the dentist—who McCarthy believed was a communist—had been promoted and discharged. Patiently and, presumably, very carefully, Brig. Gen. Ralph Zwicker explained that he had followed the recommendations of subordinates and Army protocol. McCarthy raged: “Any man who has been given the honor of being promoted to general and who says ‘I will protect another general who protects Communists’ is not fit to wear that uniform.”
The Peress case led directly to the Army-McCarthy hearings and the senator’s descent into oblivion. But the point today is that McCarthy’s assertion that Zwicker—who had gone ashore before the first wave at Omaha Beach to do reconnaissance for D-Day—was “not fit to wear that uniform” struck Americans of the day as deeply shocking.
But that was then. Reasonable people will differ about the merits of DACA, as well as Mr. Kelly’s choice to join the Trump administration. Mr. Gutiérrez is entitled to his opinion, including the Nazi allusion to “just following orders.” Yet reaction to the insult proved mildly predictable: Some retorted that Mr. Gutiérrez never served in the armed forces—a criticism leveled, with equal validity, at Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt —while others pointed out that Mr. Kelly’s elder son had been killed in action in Afghanistan.
Civic life has lost something when an angry congressman is emboldened to declare an honorable officer a “disgrace to the uniform.” In 1954 such aspersions were regarded as abhorrent. Now they’re just noise in a busy news cycle.
Mr. Terzian is a senior editor of the Weekly Standard.